If you’re someone who hears “journaling” and thinks Oprah or gratitude or pictures of influencers sitting in a softly lit space by a window with a latte and a color-coded bookshelf, then one, we can totally be friends, and two, you’ll want to stick around while we unpack the whole journaling thing today.
If we’ve spent time together, you may already know I love to talk about buzzwords and misunderstood concepts and reframe them in a way where you are then able to see how they could work for you. One of the things I love the most as a coach is customizing the HOW of something my client has decided they want. If there is an approach or a technique that you want to take advantage of, but the traditional way seems far removed from how you work, I encourage you to look further. It’s easy to get caught up in the most common or most popular aspects of something, like journaling, and dismiss it out of hand. Stick with me, and we’ll do what I do with all my clients: we’ll take that concept and turn it around until it fits you.
The Benefits of Therapeutic Journaling for Mental Health
Today I want to start with some ideas on different ways we can journal–to give you a bigger picture view of just some of the options out there–and then we’ll talk about the benefits of therapeutic journaling specifically. I’ll be sure to leave you with some next steps, including prompts to get you started.
WHAT JOURNALING IS AND WAYS TO DO IT
To me, journaling is one of the simplest yet most potent growth tools out there. You control the cost and the effort, but the benefits will come regardless of the approach if you do it consistently.
Journaling is the act of regularly recording your thoughts, emotions, experiences, and reflections in a personal space (it could be a physical notebook or digital platform). Journaling is intended to encourage self-discovery, self-expression, and personal development and primarily involves writing but can include visual elements.
A journal is a safe, private space to explore your inner world. You can use it as a therapeutic tool, which we’ll talk about today, or as a creative outlet or a way to capture moments or track progress. You can use it for business, which we discussed with Lisa Latimer on the podcast.
There are so many ways to approach journaling, including free writing and stream-of-consciousness writing as well as prompt-based journaling. Types of journals can include bullet journals, gratitude journals, dream journals, and travel journals. The process can be short 5-10 minute sprints or longer sessions with visual elements.
Reflective journaling is another kind that is probably most connected to therapeutic. It’s a way to capture your experiences and emotions by describing what has happened and how you perceive it.
BENEFITS OF JOURNALING
Journaling supports personal growth by creating a space and habit of self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-discovery. By telling your story to yourself, you are in the practice of seeing your life from a different perspective, and with that perspective comes so many benefits.
As mentioned before, it’s a safe space, which is what you need to properly process your experiences and the stress, the emotions that go with them. Stress reduction alone from getting it out of your head and heart and onto paper can be a massive benefit. Emotional release through writing in a private space gets you in far less trouble than punching something or someone, so there’s that.
Once you’ve released your thoughts and feelings, you then have the space to process them. As you write about them, you may be able to find solutions and next steps. That is where therapeutic journaling can be most productive. It’s healthy to release what’s pent up in you, so I don’t want to diminish that. That alone is a benefit. But there is a next-level benefit to figuring out what’s beyond the thoughts and feelings. It can help you take healthy action and become better at dealing with those same thoughts and feelings in the future.
One of the most common challenges I work on with clients is prioritizing, which is essentially making a set of decisions. Part of why it works so well to work with a coach is the external processing that happens when we talk. The extra benefit of having a coach is that I ask follow-up questions and can also offer suggestions and help you brainstorm solutions, so that’s why we can fast-track your progress. But there are many instances where you can keep asking yourself the questions and process a challenge quite far on your own through journaling. Writing it all out can help you organize your thoughts and see things differently, especially if you take a break and come back and read it later.
Ultimately stepping outside yourself and engaging in your life experiences from the perspective of an observer is a practice of mindfulness and being present. Journaling can be a meditative experience and can help you learn self-compassion. Most importantly, it can help you foster a deeper connection with yourself.
HOW TO APPROACH THERAPEUTIC JOURNAL
Keeping in mind that therapeutic journaling is a more reflective style, here are steps you can take to try it:
- Find a private space to focus on your thoughts and emotions without interruptions. This could be a quiet spot at home, or it could be in public somewhere like a coffee shop, which sounds counter-intuitive, but it isn’t if you feel the right energy and anonymity for this task.
- Set aside dedicated time where you can focus and approach this consistently. This is what creates the habit and practice.
- Let go of perfection. Give yourself permission to write without judgment or censorship. Don’t catch yourself when you’re writing. Let your thoughts and feelings flow onto the pages without worrying about grammar or spelling or even if it makes sense. This is not about pretty. This is about processing. The more honest and authentic you are, the better the outcome.
- Explore and ask questions. Use your journal to delve further into the experiences and emotions you write about. What are their underlying causes? Now is the time to keep asking WHY and to look for patterns and triggers.
- Allow the positive and negative. Reflect on how you feel, what frustrates you, what excites you, and what you appreciate (which is a form of gratitude journaling) so you can create a balance.
- Use the space to talk to yourself. This is not a specific conversation with someone else. It’s with you. You can treat it like a diary, write letters to yourself, and even create affirmations. You can ask yourself questions and then answer them.
- Dream away. While this can be a place to set goals, I would suggest it’s better to track your dreams and desires and what drives you. Tap into that for the energy to take action.
- Use it as a self-care assessment. Because your journal is such a good tool for self-reflection, it’s an ideal place to address self-care. Write about your needs, desires, and boundaries. Explore ways to nurture and care for yourself, physically and mentally. Express that yearning for you to be taken care of, too, and allow that to help you grow into someone who honors those needs.
I also highly recommend you review your journal entries. Doing so will remind you where you are in life (often including your progress) and make it easier to observe patterns over time. Each time you review, you have the potential to make new connections and gain new insights.
JOURNAL PROMPTS TO TRY
While you can start with a blank page and start to write, I find that most people would prefer a starting point. Here are 5 prompts to help you get started:
- Challenges and Conflict. Write about a recent challenge or conflict you faced and how it made you feel. Reflect on what you learned from this experience and how it has contributed to your personal growth.
- Write Yourself. It can be to you right now, to your younger self, to your future self. What words of advice, encouragement, or reassurance would you offer? What would you like to see happen? What have you learned?
- Self-care Audit. Describe a self-care routine or activity and assess what it does. Does it nourish you, or is it lacking? How do you feel? What would you change?
- Fears and Beliefs. Write about a fear or limiting belief that holds you back from pursuing your goals or living a fulfilling life. Ask yourself where it might come from and if you truly believe it deep down. How can you work towards overcoming it?
- Imagine your ideal day or life. Write in detail about what it looks like, feels like, and the steps you can take to move closer to that vision. Think about it as if obstacles or fears or resources weren’t an issue, and that helps you brainstorm strategies to overcome them.
I kept this list limited to make choosing one easier, but the variations are plenty.
If you want to expand even further, this is a place where you could have an AI chatbot like ChatGPT help you out. You could explain what you’re trying to journal about and ask for prompts relating to that.
One last thing I want to mention is that this, like any other practice, needs to be approached like a habit. While that includes establishing a consistent way to practice, more importantly, it’s about making it fun and enticing. If you’re like me, you love a beautiful, inspiring journal and a really good pen to write with, so that’s one way. If you find that you need a quicker way to do it, then a dedicated notebook inside of Goodnotes on your iPad could work. You could even set up a folder where you do voice messages to yourself based on your chosen prompt.
Keep in mind that writing has a neurosensory experience that is important, so try to write if you can. And if you want the writing experience but don’t want to waste paper or don’t have writing tools sitting around, something like the Rocketbook could work well. You use erasable pens and markers, write what you want, scan it into a folder or email, and wipe it away. My favorite journals and the Rocketbook I use are on my favorites page of the website https://positivelyproductive.com/favorites/
I realize there are a lot of variables here, so even a simple concept can feel confusing when there are too many choices. Let the “easy” win here because the key is to start. And remember, if you have questions, you can DM me on social media or message me via my contact page on the website.